Reece James might just be the antithesis of everything Chelsea have stood for over the past decade and a half.
Ever since Roman Abramovich took over the club in 2003, academy prospects – with a few notable exceptions – have largely operated on the periphery, with various managers choosing to bolster the Blues ranks with expensive, well-established names.
You can’t say it hasn’t worked out for Chelsea. The Abramovich era has been the most successful in the club’s history with 13 major trophies being paraded at Stamford Bridge. The haul has including five Premier League titles and, of course, the Champions League – which the Blues clinched in 2012.
However, perhaps things are finally changing at the Bridge. Yes, there had been strong evidence of the club adopting a more-youth oriented approach this season, but the cynics among us would have surely questioned whether this tact would continue now that the Blues’ transfer ban has been lifted.
With restrictions removed and Abramovich free to flex his financial muscles again, the club were in the clear to discard their young talent in search of a more lavishly obtained vintage.
The news of James’ new five-and-a-half year contract should prove enough for even the most jaded members of the footballing community to finally concede that Chelsea may be doing things a little bit differently these days.
Not that the 20-year-old has been gifted his new deal as a sign of tokenism to the Blues’ new approach. No, James’ success story is instead a direct result of said approach.
The right-back has been extremely impressive this season, displaying his athleticism and pinpoint crossing accuracy. Very much akin to Trent Alexander-Arnold in his modern, expansive approach to the full-back role, James’ story is one of steady progress and intelligent management of his development by the Blues.
Sent out on loan to Wigan Athletic last season, he was ever-present in the Latics first team whose strong end to the campaign eventually saw them comfortably avoid relegation.
It was the perfect place for him to develop, with James’ excellent displays securing himself a space in the Championship Team of the Season as well as earning him lavish praise from Wigan manager Paul Cook.
“He’s player of the month every month, and he’s man of the match almost every week. And he’s as good a lad as he is a player. There’s nothing else I can say about him,” Cook beamed in April last year, as reported by talkSPORT.
Despite his incredible season, James was unfortunately absent from the Blues team early in the season with an injury, a blow made more painful by the fact that Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham – two academy graduates who also impressed on-loan to second tier clubs the previous campaign – quickly became ever-presents.
When he was finally unleashed onto the world in a 7-1 victory over Grimsby Town in the Carabao Cup, Frank Lampard was generous in his praise for the youngster, who managed to register a goal and an assist on his return.
Since then, James has been slowly integrated in the team – so as not to overwhelm the young talent – and Chelsea’s savvy management has been rewarded by a string of top displays.
Against Crystal Palace in September, he effectively rendered Wilfried Zaha obsolete with a remarkable defensive display, while in his most recent display in 3-0 win over Burnley he showcased his offensive abilities, providing an inch-perfect cross for Abraham to nod home.
James’ crossing ability is striking and has drawn some very hefty comparisons from club legend Pat Nevin recently.
As of right now. In terms of pure quality and ability.
Alexander Arnold > Reece James > Wan Bissaka
I said what I said and I rest my case. Reece James will takeover eventually.
— Mod (@CFCMod_) January 15, 2020
Though James is unlikely to trouble Becks’ England cap tally due to the Three Lions’ ridiculous strength at right-back, his contract renewal is a welcome symptom of Chelsea’s new approach to player development.
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